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Prince of Asturias Award for Literature 2007
The Woman in the Window
If you buy a ticket and travel to another country, you are likely to see the monuments, the palaces and the squares, the museums and the landscapes and the historical sites. If you are lucky, you may have a chance to conduct some conversations with the local people. Then you will travel back home, carrying a bunch of photographs or postcards.
But if you read a novel, you actually obtain a ticket into the most intimate recesses of another country and of another people. Reading a foreign novel is an invitation to visit other people´s homes and other country´s private quarters.
If you are a mere tourist, you might stand on a street and look up at an old house, in the old part of town, and see a woman staring out of her window. Then you will walk on.
But if you are a reader, you can see that woman staring out of her window, but you are there with her, inside her room, inside her head.
As you read a foreign novel, you are actually invited into other people´s living rooms, into their nurseries and studies, into their bedrooms. You are invited into their secret sorrows, into their family joys, into their dreams.
Which is why I believe in literature as a bridge between peoples. I believe curiosity can be a moral quality. I believe imagining the other can be an antidote to fanaticism. Imagining the other will make you not only a better businessperson or a better love, but even a better person.
Part of the tragedy between Jew and Arab is the inability of so many of us, Jews and Arabs, to imagine each other. Really imagine each other: the loves, the terrible fears, the anger, the passion. There is too much hostility between us, too little curiosity.
Jews and Arabs have something essential in common: they have both been handled, coarsely and brutally, by Europe´s violent hand in the past. The Arabs - through imperialism, colonialism, exploitation and humiliations. The Jews - through discrimination, persecution, expulsion, and ultimately mass murder on an unprecedented scale.
One would have thought that two victims, and especially two victims of the same oppressor, develop between them a sense of solidarity. Alas, this is not the way it works, neither in novels, nor in life. Some of the worst conflicts are indeed between two victims of the same oppressor; two children of the same violent parent don´t necessarily like each other. Often they see in each other the image of the abusive parent.
Which is exactly the case between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. While the Arabs regards Israelis as latter-day crusaders, an extension of the white, colonizing Europe, many Israelis, for their part, regards the Arabs as the new incarnation of our past oppressors, pogrom makers and Nazis.
This situation charges Europe with a particular responsibility for the solution of the Israeli-Arab conflict: instead of wagging their fingers at either side, Europeans should extend empathy, understanding and help to both sides. You no longer have to choose between being pro-Israel and being pro-Palestine. You have to be pro-Peace.
The woman in the window might be a Palestinian woman in Nablus. She might be a Jewish Israeli woman in Tel-Aviv. If you want to help make peace between these two women in the two windows, you had better read more about them. Read novels, dear friends. They will tell you much.
It is even time for each of these women to read about each other. To learn, at last, what makes the other woman in the window frightened, angry, or hopeful.
I have not suggested to you tonight that reading novels can change the world. I did suggest, and I do believe, that reading novels is one of the best possible ways to understand that all the women, in all the windows, are at the end of the day, in urgent need of peace.
I wish to thank the jury of the prize of the Prince of Asturias for granting me this magnificent award. Thank you, and Shalom to you all.
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